The prognosis was beyond gloomy. It sounded more like a death sentence. Ricky Palermo was told that not only would he never walk again after being paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1981, but also he could count on living only 10-to-12 more years.
“When you are 21 years old and you’ve been active your whole life that’s the last thing you want to hear,’’ he said. “But I’m happy to report they were wrong. Thirty-seven years later, I’m alive.”
Is he ever! Alive and full of life. From his wheelchair, Palermo remains a man in motion, boasting enough energy to light up a village. He holds out hope he will walk again. His spirits are buoyed by the ground-breaking spinal injury research being done at The Miami Project in South Florida—research he’s been a part of—and by witnessing paralyzed patients rising from their chairs and taking steps on their own two legs.
“Because of the work being done there, there’s a can-do attitude that didn’t exist back when I was injured,’’ he said. “Doctors no longer are talking about how many years you have to live, or how your parents are probably going to divorce because of the stress your injury and care will cause them. Instead, they’re telling people with spinal injuries that they can live complete and active lives and maybe even walk again. Although there’s still a ways to go, we’re lightyears from where we were in 1981, and that’s so encouraging.”
Palermo is one of those rare individuals who has managed to turn tragedy into triumph. Inspired by late, great Rochester basketball official Pete Pavia, who raised tens of thousands of dollars for Camp Good Days and Special Times while battling terminal cancer, Palermo and his family started a golf tournament in Batavia in 1997 with modest fundraising expectations. Twenty-one years and roughly $1.4-million in donations later, the Ricky Palermo Spinal Injury Golf Tournament continues to flourish. The 22nd edition will be played Saturday with nearly 200 golfers from eight different states teeing off at Terry Hills Golf Course, down the block from Palermo’s home.
“We had no idea if it was going to fly,’’ he said. “We set a goal of $5,000 the first year and wound up making $11,500. We said, ‘Let’s try holding another one.’ And we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Money raised from the tournament, an auction and local sports clinics has been donated to the United Memorial Medical Center, Strong Memorial Hospital’s spinal unit, the Batavia YMCA bike program for people with neurological challenges and The Miami Project.
Like his older brother Jim, Palermo grew up loving sports and was named Byron Bergen High School athlete of the year after earning most valuable player honors in soccer, basketball and baseball his senior year. He remained active in sports after graduating, but his life came to a screeching halt following an accident on the way to a hunting outing with a friend. Palermo’s dire prognosis led to deep depression.
“For a time there, I lost my will,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I definitely tried my family’s patience. Fortunately, they never stopped loving me; never stopped encouraging me.”
In 1984, Marc Buoniconti, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, was paralyzed in a college football game. A year later, the elder Buoniconti partnered with Dr. Barth Green to found The Miami Project to seek a cure for paralysis. Through friends, the Palermos contacted Nick Buoniconti. Ricky was invited down and became one of six patients in an exercise research program that led to the development of the Functional Electrical Stimulation bike.
“They hook these electrodes to your legs and electrical currents stimulate your muscles to pedal the stationary bike,’’ Palermo said. “Dr. Green believed that exercise is medication, that by helping people with paralysis work out, they would benefit physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s helped my cardiovascular system, and it’s helped my legs go from jelly to having some muscle tone.”
Thanks to funds raised by Palermo’s tournament, two FES bikes are being used by patients at the Batavia Y.
“It’s done wonders,’’ said Palermo, who takes hour-long rides three times a week. “It’s just one of the exciting things that’s come from their research.”
The Project’s doctors also were involved in developing the hypothermia treatments that helped Kevin Everett walk again after the Buffalo Bills player was paralyzed in a game 10 years ago. Since Everett’s injury, about 70 others who suffered similar injuries have walked again.
“That’s one of my motivations for continuing the tournament,’’ Palermo said. “Every dollar raised is making a difference.’’
The cause has been a family affair for Ricky, his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, and his sister and her late husband. One of the people on the front lines is Ricky’s niece, Annie Palermo, a doctor who recently was hired by The Miami Project. “How cool is that?” Ricky said, beaming with pride.
The close-knit Batavia community has rallied around him, too. So have total strangers and big-name celebrities. Among them is Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who met Palermo at the Project’s annual gala and immediately bonded with him.
“Ricky is just one of those positive forces of nature,’’ said Walton, who underwent 37 surgeries before finally finding relief from debilitating back pain. “He has an indomitable spirit. He’s a spiritual forklift who lifts people and things up, and puts them in a better place.”
Nick and Marc Buoniconti and the doctors, researchers and therapists at the Project second that emotion. They invite Palermo and his family to their legends dinner each year, and recently honored Ricky with a new state-of-the-art wheelchair and dedicated a wing in honor of him and his family. “I’m truly blessed,’’ he said.
And ever hopeful.
“People ask me when did I accept the fact I was paralyzed, and I tell them I still haven’t accepted it,’’ he said. “I’m going to keep fighting. Like my niece, Annie, says, ‘The book isn’t closed.’ We all believe it’s just a matter of time before we find a cure.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.